A breezy survey of the kinds and uses of indexes

The cover of “Index, A History of the: A Bookish Adventure from Medieval Manuscripts to the Digital Age” by Dennis Duncan. (Courtesy of Norton/TNS)

“Index, a History of the” by Dennis Duncan; Norton (352 pages, $30)

Readers — even those who think the subject of this witty book could be filed under “Books, dullest parts of” — will be delighted by Duncan’s breezy survey of the kinds and uses of indexes (a term he prefers to “indices,” incidentally).

There are stories about books, including Vladimir Nabokov’s “Pale Fire,” that come alive in the index, and even some that are nothing but indexes. There’s a history of the development of the sorting system, which goes back at least as far as the Library of Alexandria in Egypt, where somebody had to figure out a way to organize the info in those scrolls lying all over the place.

There’s a look at how search engines have revolutionized the meaning of an index. And there’s Duncan’s insistence that all of us who love or respect or even just occasionally use words are participants in the vast, worldwide index that’s being compiled even as you read this.

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